American Airlines to Passengers: “Unhappy? It’s All Your Fault.”

american-adThis is the ideal time to start writing this piece. Having just paid an additional $200 for the privilege of changing my flight home from JFK to LAX, I am sandwiched in a middle seat between a guy who looks like he could have played right tackle for USC and another man who is only the size of an average linebacker. Our shoulders are wider than the seats. The bigger guy on my left has a big bottle of soda in his blazer pocket that’s digging into my side. The big guy on my right clearly wants the armrest between us all to himself. The people in front of us have reclined their seats so that my computer barely opens. I wish I could “sit back, relax and enjoy my flight” for the next six hours, but ergonomics that make that impossible. Plus, I’ve got to work. I am doing ridiculous contortions to type.

And these are the good coach seats, the ones with “extra leg room.”

According to American Airlines’ new advertising campaign this miserable state is all of my own making.

The airline has cynically chosen to deflect attention from its own failings by pretending to honor its customers, the “World’s Greatest Fliers.” Yes, it’s wonderful to travel nearly 3,000 miles in six hours or so for about $700 –  actually $900 since they hit me with that additional charge. It sure beats taking the bus or driving, but there’s a huge price to pay in the most basic human comforts and dignity. As an old SNL ad spoof once said, “It’s like riding in a cattle car with wings.”

At least Southwest doesn’t pretend. They set reasonable expectations and generally meet or exceed them. They’re not pretending to be fancy or special. You know the deal. They give you a decent fare and a bag of peanuts and that’s that. I only fly them on short hops anyway, so it’s never that bad.

American seems to be pretending that we’re still in the 1950’s and that air travel is a special experience. But all they’ve done since then is to pack a lot more seats into coach, eliminate meals and other amenities, make the bathrooms smaller to squeeze in even more seats, cut back on the number of flight attendants, slash the number of flights so a full plane is nearly always guaranteed and charge you to check luggage.

That’s all old news. The crime here – and it almost reaches the level of a crime – is American telling me to ignore all that. You see, it’s not them, it’s me.

If I would only be nice to the couple with the screaming baby and I didn’t raise my window shade when the person next to me is watching a movie. Everything would be just perfect. But it’s not. (And I do all those things anyway.)

The ad tells us that great fliers “know their mood contributes to the mood of the flight.”

Exactly right. Could they make us more miserable? Do they really think that if everyone joined hands and sang Kumbaya at the gate that the experience of being abused would be more pleasant for us?

It’s the height of cynicism. Check out the incredibly condescending  perspective of John Thomas, an airline consultant and clearly a toady for the industry, from a New York Times piece:

“It sounds like they’re also trying to touch on civility in travel again. I think the industry as a whole is trying to subtly do that,” Mr. Thomas said. When it comes to in-flight etiquette, “I think the industry probably recognizes that a lot of people don’t know how to define civility,” he said, pointing out that infrequent fliers might not be aware of the unspoken code of good flier behavior. “This is a way of starting to educate people.”

Or, how about this, from the same article:

“It’s not just like these are tips on how to be a great flier. It’s a way of thinking,” said Ralph Watson, vice president and chief creative officer at Crispin Porter & Bogusky Boulder, American’s ad agency partner. “It’s a slightly elevated sense of awareness for others; it’s a little bit less selfish. I think a lot of this is to recognize that behavior and help it spread.”

Yes, we the passengers should all be a little less selfish, but it’s fine for American to raise fees and cut service. That wouldn’t be selfish at all!

The thing is, I am not guilt free in all of this. I am an Airline Abuse Enabler. I’m hopelessly hooked on the frequent flier program and can’t seem to break the addiction. With my 2 million plus lifetime miles on American, I’m at their Platinum level for life. I get those “good seats” with more legroom, I can check bags for free, and on those rare occasions when the planets are in alignment, I get upgraded to business or first class.  So rather than booking on Jet Blue or Virgin America, both of which would be far more pleasant, I continue to stick with American.

Time to cut the cord and make a statement. To use up the 250,000 plus miles and upgrades I’ve accumulated and cash them in for business class tickets to one of those exotic destinations I’ve been thinking about visiting. The only way the legacy airlines will get the message is if we boycott them. When they decide to treat us like humans again, we can reconsider.

Of course, I believe that American is entitled to make a profit. But their business model is really none of my concern. They’ll just have to figure out how to make money and treat people with dignity at the same time.

  • Jeannie Ashford
    Posted at 07:57h, 15 September Reply

    Great piece! You hit the nail on the head by zeroing in on “dignity.” I lose all sense of dignity when I fly, from the near strip-search by TSA, to the tacky concourses, agonizing boarding process, and of course the flight. Yes, let’s bring civility back to flying—starting with the airlines.

  • Bruce Silverman
    Posted at 10:00h, 15 September Reply

    I was the creative director on the American Airlines advertising account many years ago, back when flying was fun. We enjoyed hand-cut prime rib at round tables in the first class section of American’s 747’s and we even ate well in coach. AA had a coach lounge in the rear of its DC-10’s equipped with a small piano (often painfully played by a drunk passenger.) Leg room was reasonable even in coach; the seat pitch in those days was 37″ – now it’s 31″ and in some rows, even less. The first hint to me that things were going to go south was when AA traded their seven 747’s to Pan Am for 10 DC-10’s … and added a seat to every row in coach. Then came the 757’s, narrow planes with narrower seats than the 727’s they replaced. Meals disappeared. “Fines” were imposed if you had to change a flight. Now AA uses 737’s to fly its transcon routes. All awful. But to a degree, we — PASSENGERS — have to share the blame. In an effort to combat low fare/low service airlines, AA briefly tried to position itself as an airline worth paying extra to fly. More comfort; real meals, more service, etc. That flopped dismally. Travelers care most about price — which led to us now getting what we pay for… the race to the bottom.

  • Diane Harris
    Posted at 10:38h, 15 September Reply

    There is a reason why we called USAirways, now part of AA, Useless Airlines.

  • Jean-Pierre Lacroix
    Posted at 11:03h, 15 September Reply

    Jeff, unfortunately to stuck your loyalty to the wrong wagon. You should fly Air Canada where the Canadian touch of humility and respect is alive and well. What the airline world needs is a little more of CANADA!

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